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Tech Life

‘Personal Engineering’ Through Powerful Questions and Play

Portia Tung, a professional coach, believes in the power of play to help IT teams tap the thinking they need to solve challenges.
May 8th, 2022 6:00am by
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Featured image by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash. 

David Cassel
David Cassel is a proud resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has been covering technology news for more than two decades. Over the years his articles have appeared everywhere from CNN, MSNBC, and the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition to Salon, Wired News,, and even the original HotWired, as well as Gawker, Gizmodo, McSweeneys, and Wonkette. He's now broadening his career skills by becoming a part-time computer programmer, developing two Android apps, co-producing two word games for Amazon Kindle, and dabbling in interactive fiction.

On Portia Tung’s LinkedIn profile, the most current position is “chief play officer” at a transformation consultancy called Adaptavis — a position that includes enterprise/executive Agile coaching “grounded in systemic coaching and play science.” And she also gives workshops on improving your “play intelligence.”

Tung’s online biography even specifies a belief that play “is essential for the lifelong development of adults.”

So to put it simply, Portia Tung is a professional coach — specifically, an executive and business Agile coach — as well as personal coach, and “storyteller and wishmaker.” And it’s all grounded in a deeply-held faith in the transformative power of play.

This unique set of skills led to an impressive roster of clients. Tung’s “School of Play” site boasts that she has brought transformative change to Britain’s Prime Minister’s Office and the National Health Service, as well as to British Airways and to global financial institutions.

Yet Tung’s career began more than 20 years ago as a software developer and team lead (according to the School of Play site) — and those experiences still find their way into her philosophy.

This past September, she distilled her belief in the power of play to bring personal, organizational, and systemic change into some useful exercises, for an audience at the software industry conference YOW!

She shared a truth learned from 20 years in the IT world: “Most of the really tricky problems are seldomly about technology or software.” Sure there are solutions/options/beautiful architecture, she acknowledged, “but the tougher problems I’ve come across in working with organizations is: it’s not the software. It’s the people-ware. Right?”

Effective leadership, she told the YOW! audience, “begins and belongs with ourselves.” And this can sometimes be much harder than solving technical challenges — and may require some internal reflection.

Everything Is Data

Tung’s presentation was certainly playful. As she told the audience, “I try to include all of this lovely play science and various sciences in creativity into the work I do in helping organizations and the people in them be the best they can be.”

Some of the talk was even illustrated with Star Wars figurines.

Screenshot from Portia Tung talk on Personal Engneering (with Star Wars figurines

But her talk ultimately chronicled a path to what she calls “personal engineering.” That is, “a curated collection of tools and techniques” for self-improvement “that I’ve taken the trouble to test, mostly on myself but also in collaboration with others throughout my career.”

Tung began with three golden rules.

  • Treat everything as data.
  • Stay with not knowing. (“Give our critical minds a little break — and just keep it open and curious.”)
  • Trust in the process. This may be the antidote, Tung said, for our fear of the unknown, a hard-wired human instinct that she acknowledges “is what’s kept us alive.

In the case of Rule No. 3, that means having some faith in the power of both thinking and listening. Tung pointed out that talking may surface pre-existing beliefs and assumptions — and then urged the audience to be prepared to honestly explore them.

The main tool she shared was “powerful questions” — a specific term for the kind of questions that are “deliberately open,” to provoke conversation, insight and reflection.

“In polite conversation, the way I’ve brought up, I’ve been told off for asking such rude or nosey questions,” Tung added, with a laugh. ” But fortunately in the coaching profession — and good management and leadership professions — it’s about curiosity and motivation.”

The idea is to “ignite” the thinking of the people you’re talking to you:

  • What would you like to have happen?
  • What challenging step do you want to take right now in your life?
  • What assumption might be stopping you from taking the next step?
  • What more do you think, feel, or want to say?

There’s another reason this technique is so powerful: describing things vocally, out loud, creates a special kind of distance — and a perspective. So whatever the issue, “All of a sudden you’ll see it much more clearly for what it is,” she said. “You can really navigate a problem by looking at it in different perspectives.”

Besides, she added, “That’s why Post-Its in Agile are so popular.”

Being asked the questions creates a “safe and nurturing thinking environment,” Tung said. And it’s a phenomenon she also alluded to earlier in her presentation.

“Until we hear ourselves think, and very often give ourselves permission to think things through — we don’t really know what we’re thinking.”

Cultivating Courage and Self-Awareness

Questions like these may also require courage — to actually ask the question, as well as for the respondent to dare to answer honestly from their own position of personal agency. (“Being told what to do, unfortunately, is still more often than not the default way of managing in many organizations,” Tung noted.)

But as part of this process, she said, you’ll need to trust your “instruments” — your senses, feelings and thoughts.

And at this point, Tung talked about the importance of cultivating and valuing your own self-awareness. (Since you’ll need this to apply any insights from those powerful questions.)

She pointed out that in general, self-awareness and self-management “is what enables us to have positive and effective relationships with others — but also with our teams and in our organizations.”

Screenshot from Portia Tung talk on Personal Engneering - On Becoming a Person, showing three stuffed animals surrounding the book "On Becoming a Person" at the center of the image and Tung's face in a screen insert in the upper right corner

Portia Tung, here speaking on the topic of “personal engineering,” believes in play as a method of helping adults navigate transformation.

What Great Managers Do

But it’s also important when asking the questions to start with a critical assumption: that everyone already has what they need to overcome their challenges. “The purpose of a coach or a great manager or a leader is to enable the thinker to figure out that path,” Tung said, adding, “It’s not to guide them or to give them a path. It’s really for people to think for themselves.”

This applies to the person asking the questions, too. The listener needs to assume they have everything they need, too — not just the person they’re talking to.

To further illustrate the impact of powerful questions, Tung described a favorite exercise: simply asking what do you want to think about? (And what are your thoughts?). “The listener promises not to interrupt — but be present, and simply be still, and be with them on that journey.

“And usually this is like a five-minute exercise, and it freaks people out.”

So to extend the exercise, Tung usually gives the listener an additional question: “What more do you think, feel, or want to say?” And at least 90% of the time, they’ll surprise themselves with additional thoughts. “We know deep down that our minds want to think, and that we want to think for ourselves.”

Towards the end of the talk, she shared a remarkable story about a life coach Nancy Kline, who when speaking in Russia had invited a woman on stage. Kline had then asked the same questions — what do you want to think about, and what are your thoughts?

It provoked a torrent of a response, Tung recalled. The Russian woman “talks and talks … there’s tears, there’s transformation.” And it ends when the woman takes Kline’s hand, and thanks her for the epic experience — and for all the good advice that she believed Kline had given her.

Kline could only smile kindly — and point out gently that she hadn’t said a word. “It was all your thinking.”

Tung shares the essential lesson this illustrates. “We talk about empowerment in organizations. But we wouldn’t need empowerment if we gave permission to ourselves to do our best thinking.

“And that we also respected each other enough to give each other permission to do their best thinking.”

Screenshot from Portia Tung talk on Personal Engneering - Frankl quote


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